We drove to Venkataramanaswami Temple, located within a dry landscape surrounded by hills strewn with granite boulders, devoid of vegetation except for a thick growth of thorny shrubs. As one faces the main gate-pyramid of the temple, now abandoned, one is concious of it being dominated by a huge, rounded, imposing stratified granite rock behind it, one of the hills of Gingee Fort.
Troops of monkees from the surrounding area clamour over the walls of the temples. We explored the corridors and enclosures of the vast complex, pondering what stories and secrets it held. Despite its state of decay, it remains an impressive, fascinating complex.
Quoting : “This sprawing temple, with its striking sculptures and carved pillars, narrates the aesthetic skills of the Nayaka dynasty. Built by MuthialuNayaka (1540-1550 A. D ) it abounds in gopuras, mandapas and sculptured panels depicting gods and goddesses in scenes from the Hindu epics. Many Tamil inscriptions are also found in the walls of the Mandapas.
The temple seems to have faced hard times during the French occupation (after 1761 A .D.) From this period the temple experienced forms of decay and old archaeological wealth was plundered by subsequent invaders. The original tall, graceful monolithic pillars from the temple are said to have been carried away to Pondicherry by the French and to have been fixed around the Place de la République, near the old pier”.
We were fast running out of time, if we needed to reach Vellore before dark. But we were also hungry and so filling our stomachs was indeed a higher priority. In Gingee, we found a restaurant and sat down to a vegetarian Biriyani meal. Ilango was pleased that I was able to adopt the Indian custom of eating with one’s hands. The traditional way of eating a meal involves being seated on the floor, having the food served on a banana leaf, and using clean fingers of the right hand to transfer the food to the mouth. After the meal, the fingers are washed, and the banana leaf becomes food for cows.
At 14h30, we were back on the road, occasionaly stopping to check with locals that we were heading in the right direction. The golden temple of Sripuram, known as Lakshmi Narayani temple or Mahalakshmi temple, is a spiritual park situated at the foot of a small range of green hills in a place known as Malaikodi, at the southern end of the city of Vellore, at Tirumalaikodi. The temple is located on 100 acres of land and has been constructed by Vellore-based Sri Narayani Peedam, headed by spiritual leader Sri Sakthi Amma, also known as Narayani Amma. The temple is entirely coated in gold on the exterior and interior, including all of its intricate carvings and sculptures.
The lighting ensures that the temple glitters after dark. The construction of the temple was completed on August 24, 2007. More than 1500 kg of gold was used to build it. All the gold work was done by artisans specializing in temple art using gold. Every single detail was manually created, including converting the gold chunks into gold foils and then mounting on the gold foils on copper. The Sripuram design represents a star-shaped path (sri chakra), positioned in the middle of the lush, green landscaped garden, with a length of over 1.8 km.
Upon arrival, we had to overcome a number of obstacles prior to gaining entry. Crowds of people gathered at the temple’s gates, many exploring the vast flea market outside. Buses and cars streamed into the entrance towards the parking area. An entrance ticket needs to be purchased, at a cost of 100 rupees. Ilango and Tim, wearing shorts, were haruanged by a woman determined that they were not to enter until she had sold or rented a shawl which they were to wrap around their waists. Despite Ilango having a walking disability, he was having none of their insisting on a wheel-chair. All mobile phones and cameras have to be handed in, for a fee, of course.
The complex is marshalled by a disciplined team of security guards, hardly the atmosphere normally associated with a place of religious worship. One has to walk along the star path to reach the temple in the middle, which is laid by messages from Sri Sakthi Amma and from different faiths and spiritual leaders. Ilango and I took the short cut.
Prior to this, one is lead through a series of shops with tiled flooring, selling all sorts of trinkets, souvenirs, books, cds and dvds depicting the complex or the teachings of its spiritual leader, Sri Sakthi Amma, encouraging devotees to part with their hard-earned rupees. There is no doubt that it is a truly awesome structure however the commercial nature of its operation leaves some doubt as to its autheticity as to a place of religious significance, a far cry from the traditional temples we had visited earlier in the day. To be fair, at most large cathedrals in Europe, one is also likely to encounter an adjacent, small shop. The last straw, upon reaching a gate to the temple’s inner sanctum which lay before us, was that we were required to pay an additional 100 rupees for the privilege.
We had remained after sunset to take in the splendour of the temple’s glistening architecture, now illuminated, which formed a silhouette against the night sky. Arul then picked us up and we headed back down the highway towards Chennai, arriving at the Gem Inn around 10h30. Aruls’ driving exploits led me to suggest that he was wasting his time as a taxi driver and that he was perhaps better-suited to joining India’s Formula 1 racing team. Even the police car we passed en route was given short shrift. The throbbing, rhythmic Indian music from his car speakers, which included the soundtrack to the movie “Mangatha”, along with others, was a real treat, though.